November 19, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
The Divorce Corp. conference on family court reform this past weekend was a rousing success. Kudos to Joe Sorge and his organization for putting it on and most of all for bringing together, for the first time, disparate groups whose aims are, if not the same, at least headed in the same direction.
National Parents Organization was out in force with many of our Board of Directors, our Executive Director Rita Fuerst Adams, our Chairman Ned Holstein and many leaders of our state affiliates in attendance. Ours was by far the largest showing of all the organizations present.
I personally have been active in the movement for equality in family courts since 1998. Back then, I was astonished at how modest the movement was. There were few organizations, few advocates and little notice was taken of the movement in the mainstream news media, both print and electronic. Today, I’m equally astonished at the change. Now there are organizations at the state and local levels seemingly everywhere and the awareness of the issues — and the importance of those issues — on the part of the broad-based news media has grown enormously. That of course is a credit to the dedication of countless people around the world who understand that the breakdown of the family, often encouraged by laws and courts, is perhaps the single gravest threat to our collective well-being.
But often, those organizations are voices crying in the wilderness. They’re too small, too local and too poorly-funded to make much of a difference. And, having talked to many of the people who make up those organizations, I can tell you that there’s often a sense of loneliness among them. They feel they’re fighting Goliath alone, unconnected to any larger movement.
So it was beneficial for Joe Sorge and Divorce Corp. to try to bring those organizations and their activists together under one “big tent.” The sense of belonging to a wider movement was palpable throughout the weekend, and that alone was worth the time and effort spent in attending and contributing.
That feeling was strongly supported by one approach Sorge, et al took to the conduct of the conference. Far from its being just another two days of speaker after speaker lecturing a roomful of passive listeners, much of the conference was spent in accumulating and condensing the ideas, viewpoints and opinions of anyone and everyone attending who wanted to give them. And scores of people did. Those were recorded and boiled down to issues and their possible solutions. They were the ideas of people who’ve experienced first-hand the scandal that is our family court system. They were the ideas of people who’ve thought long and hard about how to fix a deeply dysfunctional system. Most importantly, they were the ideas of people who plan to see this movement through to success.
But of course there was more than just that. Above all, there was an education to be had. For example, Dr. Malin Bergstrom traveled from her native Sweden to report on conditions there. She demonstrated that the Swedes’ approach to divorce and child custody is light-years removed from our own. For one thing, 50/50 parenting is the norm there. Oh, not all parents can manage a strictly even split of time, but the assumption is that both parents are fit to care for children and the kids shouldn’t lose a parent on divorce. And they don’t.
Child support? Partly because each parent has substantial time caring for children, there is essentially no child support. That’s also because the Swedish government guarantees each child at least a minimal level of support, so the system of divorce and child support doesn’t devolve into one in which one parent hopes to reap a financial reward in the guise of supporting the child. That of course is nothing the United States will even contemplate doing for decades, if it ever does. But Bergstrom’s point was that removing that financial incentive from the child custody process is vital to reducing conflict.
Interesting too was the fact that Bergstrom and her colleagues have completed a study of the well-being of every 12- and 15-year-old child in Sweden, some 176,000 of them. The point of the study was to ascertain the effects of family structure on the children and, to the surprise of no one, kids in intact families perform better on a wide variety of measures of physical health, mental health, educational outcomes, etc. than do the children of divorce. And, again as we’d expect, the children of divorce whose parents share their care equally, do better on all those measures than do the children of single parents. For those who follow efforts to reform family courts, this is nothing new, but it is an enormous study and one that bears out just how vital that movement is.
Speaking of child support, Dr. William Comanor of the University of California at Santa Barbara gave insights into what many people already know to be true — that child support guidelines have little to do with the true costs of raising children. Comanor’s an economist and, with two of his colleagues, published a paper on both the shortcomings of existing guidelines and how those guidelines should be established.
Without becoming too tedious (not for nothing is economics called “The Dismal Science”), Comanor pointed out that the problem of existing guidelines is that they average the costs of raising children and simply assume that to be the cost of raising each additional child. Needless to say, that’s little short of loony. The simple fact is that many parents, when they have a child, add nothing to their housing costs, transportation costs, etc. So to assume that we can average the additional costs of parents who do spend more and allocate that average to every family just isn’t so.
Comanor, et al took the marginal approach that makes much more sense.
In economic parlance, “marginal” means “additional.” So the cost of raising a child is its marginal cost to its parents, i.e. its additional, actual economic cost. Using data from the United States Bureau of the Census, Comanor and his colleagues learned some very interesting things. Principally, existing methods of figuring child support guidelines hugely overestimate the costs parents actually incur. And when I say “hugely,” I mean exactly that. In some cases, those methods arrive at figures a whopping three times actual costs.
Indeed, when Comanor, et al looked at low income families, they found that they spend nothing extra for housing regardless of the number of additional children. The same is largely true for transportation and food amounts to only a slight increase. Medium income families spend slightly more and high-earning parents indeed spend a good bit more for each additional child. But even at the high end of parental earning, the additional amount is about $15,000 per year, i.e. about $1,200 per month. That of course is nothing like the amounts many non-custodial parents are ordered to pay.
The Office of Child Support Enforcement regularly bemoans the fact that courts order non-custodial parents to pay amounts beyond their ability to do so. That is a fact that needs to be addressed and Comanor’s approach to setting child support guidelines would be a good way to do it. Using his method, we’d cut down on a lot of bureaucratic expense of enforcing child support awards, have far fewer arrears, far fewer people going to jail, far less in interest accrued, etc. More importantly, we’d do all that and still support children.
Unstated by Comanor is the additional fact that we’d have a lot fewer non-custodial parents complaining that their payments go, not to support the child, but to support the custodial parent. That is one of the primary bones of contention for NC parents and the system of child support does literally nothing to address that very real and legitimate issue.
Of course I can’t begin to describe all the issues dealt with at the conference or all the countless good ideas about how to attack this seemingly intractable problem. But Joe Sorge and Divorce Corp. clearly have the bit in their teeth. Last weekend’s conference was a fine start toward harnessing all the energy, passion and dedication that’s available every day to bring sanity to our system of divorce and child custody and, in the process, make our society a better one for everyone.
National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization
National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved? Here’s how:
Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.
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